Imagine a version of Russian Roulette played with a cat that had dynamite up its butt, then add in some Uno for good measure. That’s Exploding Kittens in a nutshell, a card game designed by Microsoft’s Elan Lee and Shane Small, with art from The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman. When it launched on Kickstarter last year, it became the site’s most-funded game ever. Now, it’s coming to iPhone, but the App Store version of Exploding Kittens isn’t just a port. It’s a whole new experience.
Exploding Kittens for iPhone was developed in partnership with Substantial, a design firm based in Seattle and San Francisco which has helped companies like Google, Amazon, Starbucks, and more design and realize their apps. Looking over Substantial’s clients list, you’d be forgiven for thinking the designers were a little straight-laced to help build a game as profane and as crazy as Exploding Kittens. But the pedigree is there, if you look for it: Substantial also made a game called Dungeon Highway that helped prove it had the chops to port Exploding Kittens to iOS.
Except a direct port of Exploding Kittens isn’t what Substantial, or the game’s original creators, wanted to do. Substantial’s Mike Judge (no relation), lead developer of Exploding Kittens for iOS, doesn’t mince words about what he thinks of most physical-to-digital game adaptations. “Straight ports are usually shit,” he says. He points to the Magic: The Gathering games as exactly the kind of thing Substantial was trying to avoid with Exploding Kittens: “a crappy clone of an awesome game that just doesn’t work right when it’s brought into the digital world.”
So Exploding Kittens on iOS isn’t a direct translation of the analog card game. It mixes things up, offering both existing Exploding Kittens fans and newcomers a new thing to explore. In some ways, in fact, it feels more like a sequel to Exploding Kittens released on a different platform than a direct port. Some things are missing, but a lot more things are new. There are new cards, new mechanics, new art (courtesy of The Oatmeal’s Inman), and sounds and voices (again, mostly designed by Inman from a shack in his backyard mysteriously called the “Elf House”).
Take the selection of cards. In the physical version of Exploding Kittens, there are nine different types of cards, each of which do different things: shuffle the deck, defuse a kitten that’s about to explode, and so on. On iOS, Exploding Kittens loses at least one card type, the “Nope!” card, which exists in the analog game to prevent a player from using the card he just drew, effectively rewinding time. Complicating matters, “Nope!” cards can be played on other “Nope!” cards, and it can be played at any time, not just a player’s turn.
From a pacing perspective, this mechanism was just too cumbersome for the iOS version of Exploding Kittens. In its place are new types of cards. When played, “Annoying Diarrhea” cards freeze a card in your opponent’s hand; while “Slap!” cards force your opponent to take any of your stored-up turns, or Cat Butt cards that–well–turn all of your opponent’s cards into cat butts. Exploding Kittens on iPhone is full of such weird additions, with more available as in-app purchases.
There’s some other neat new features exclusive to iPhone, too. Exploding Kittens has always had a Blackjack-like card counting element to it. Since the game ends if you draw a cat you can’t defuse, and every turn ends with you drawing a new card, how many TNT kitties remain in a rapidly diminishing deck is always a strategic element players need to consider. Unfortunately, some players just suck at math, so the iPhone version gives them an easy-to-read meter, showing from 0% to 100% how likely the next card they draw is to blow up in their hands.
No matter how much has changed in coming to iPhone, though, one thing remains the same: Exploding Kittens is meant to be played with friends. “The joy of this game is all in screwing over your friends, and being vicious to people next to you in this funny, light-hearted way,” Judge says. Digitally, Exploding Kittens still makes you play with people in the same room, with up to five people each playing against each other from their individual iPhones. Cleverly, you don’t even need Internet access or a data plan for this to work. Instead, it uses a local mesh network to communicate to local iPhones over WiFi and Bluetooth, similar to messaging apps used by both Occupy Wall Street and cheating high school students.
So even if you’re on a camping trip, stationed on a submarine, or aboard the ISS you can still play the digital version of Exploding Kittens with your friends. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go spray my wife with cat diarrhea.